The NFL—already under fire for its handling of domestic-abuse cases, concussions, and other issues—suffered another setback Tuesday with the demise of federal regulations that helped it black out games on television.
The league argued that the rules were necessary to keep games on local broadcast TV stations. The regulations also helped keep stadiums full, boosting local economies, the league asserted.
But the Federal Communications Commission didn't buy it. The five commissioners voted unanimously to repeal the regulations.
"For 40 years, these teams have hidden behind a rule of the FCC. No more," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said.
The rules, first adopted in 1975, prohibited cable and satellite TV providers from showing a sports event in an area if the game was blacked out on broadcast television stations such as Fox or CBS.
The NFL requires broadcast stations to black out games if the local team does not sell out the stadium. So the repeal of the federal rules won't necessarily mean the end of all NFL blackouts—but it does remove any government support for the policy.
"It is the commission's job to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners," Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said.
Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, noted that the league only blacked out two games last season.
"NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts," he said. "The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television. The FCC's decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future."
The FCC began reconsidering whether to keep the regulations in place three years ago, so the vote is not a direct reaction to the league's light punishments for players accused of domestic violence.
But policymakers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the NFL and are rethinking a variety of regulatory perks that help the league reap billions of dollars in revenue every year.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, pointed to the league's "insensitivity to spouses and girlfriends" and the "offensive" name of the Washington Redskins.
"The vast majority of fans cannot afford to even park at a game, let alone attend these extravaganzas," she said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Rep. Brian Higgins, a New York Democrat, said Tuesday they plan to push legislation to keep up the pressure on the NFL to end its blackout policy.
Their bill, the FANS Act, would end the exemption to antitrust law that allows the league to force TV stations to blackout games. Without the exemption, the contractual provisions would be illegal.
On a conference call with reporters, Blumenthal said he hopes to attach his bill to another piece of legislation after the election.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, and Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, are pushing separate legislation to end the league's nonprofit status.